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The Culprits

by (author) Robert Hough

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Jun 2008
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jun 2008
    List Price

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Hank Wallins is a broken man working the night shift in a meaningless job. Tormented by the tinnitus constantly ringing in his ears, he sleepwalks through life, too scarred by a tragic love affair to try again. When a madman pushes him into the path of an oncoming subway train, this scrape with death re-awakens Hank to the world. Craving a reengagement with passion, he reaches out to a young slightly cross-eyed Russian beauty who he locates on a website. He ventures by plane to meet the lovely and mysterious Anna in her hometown of St. Petersburg.

Anna Verkoskova seeks to flee not only the hopelessness of her economic situation, but also the reminders of her own failed love affair with Ruslan, a womanizing Dagastani rock star look-alike from the Chechen region. Finding no particular reason to dislike the kind, lumbering Hank, she agrees to follow him to Canada. But once she has left Russia behind, she is overwhelmed by homesickness and a dread of disappearing into the grey Toronto winter. Then she receives a frightening note: Ruslan has been kidnapped. She races home immediately, carrying a bag stuffed with cash. Hank’s cash.

Held captive and tortured by the FSB, Ruslan has been crippled by his tormentors and injected with N20, a mysterious CIA-developed serum that fills its victims’ brains with the totality of human knowledge, rendering them insane. Ruslan is traded to Chechen radicals and ransomed. As Anna is now associated with a “rich” Westerner, she is now a target for the ransom. Ruslan’s former political disengagement has been replaced by a new sort of apathy, one that renders him a pawn to whomever has control of the omniscient demons in his ears screaming for blood.

Returned to St. Petersburg and reunited with Ruslan, Anna quickly realizes that her former lover has been lost to her forever, as has her nation. With few options, she returns to the safety of Hank and Canada and discovers that, with her passion for Ruslan faded, she has room for new passions to emerge. But she also carries with her a life-altering secret.

The novel unfolds through the words of a narrator who describes himself as an abomination, yet he is heroic and compassionate, and capable of immense acts of love, including the creation of this very narrative itself–a gift for his unborn half-sister. His horrors have been formed as a result of untold millennia of blood hatred. But it is through his existence that our protagonists transcend their own human culpability.

A kaleidoscopic and riotous tale, voiced by one of the most unusual narrators in literary history, Robert Hough’s The Culprits puts shape and flesh to the murky unknowns surrounding a real-life terrorist incident and all that led up to it, shining a light into some of humanity’s most inscrutable sins. This novel is at once a mind-blowing hallucination and a classic love story, exploring the human thirsts for love and passion, for allegiance and trust, and for terrible vengeance.

About the author

Robert Hough has been published to rave reviews in fifteen territories around the world. He is the author of The Final Confession of Mabel Stark (Vintage Canada, 2002), shortlisted for both the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book and the Trillium Book Award; The Stowaway (Vintage Canada, 2004), one of the Boston Globe’s top ten fiction titles of 2004; The Culprits (Vintage Canada, 2008); Dr. Brinkley’s Tower (House of Anansi, 2012), shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for fiction and longlisted for the Giller Prize; The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan (House of Anansi, 2015), a finalist for the Trillium Book Award; and Diego’s Crossing (Annick Press, 2015), shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award. Hough lives in Toronto, ON.

Robert Hough's profile page


  • Short-listed, Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada & Caribbean)
  • Short-listed, Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

Excerpt: The Culprits (by (author) Robert Hough)


Ahhhh, little one; ahhhhhh, my soon-to-be last-name sharer; ahhhhhhhhhh, the future pride and joy of Hank and mamochka. There’s one thing I must tell you. Life is a deception. Oh yes–it’s a ruse, it’s a scam, it’s a carnival shell game. When you peel back one layer of trickery, you’ll find another and another, each one mossy and dark and underfoot-hidden. The good news is that these layers are there for our protection. If we could scrub away the lichen and peer at life with clear vision . . . well. Its entirety would overwhelm us. It would assault all our senses, like a subway-car bombing. It would come at us roaring, rendering us madmen. And so, we deceive ourselves and all others, if only to keep a grip on this thing we call sanity.

(And with time, little one, we don’t even know when we’re lying.)

But I digress. I am overly dramatic. It’s my half-Slavic soul, drunk with attention. I’m a cranially enlarged Russian, with a soapbox to stand on. I apologize, I do; I’ll sober up, and quit harping, and get on with this blather.

This, by the way, is the tale of Tushino and the bombs that went off there. To understand that day–to appreciate, in even the smallest of ways, the deaths that occurred there–you have to know one other small thing. None of this would have happened had a delusional stranger not shoved Hank Wallins, my six-foot-and-five-inch-tall stepfather, in front of a charging subway train.

This happened on May the fifth in the year 2002. Hank, then as now, worked the night shift for Quality Assurance, the country’s second-largest provider of home and car policies. On a typical evening, he’d be given no more than an hour or two’s worth of computer processing (issuing batch reports, distributing funds, testing systems), which he’d then have to drizzle over eight fluorescent-lit hours. “Boredom,” his predecessor had warned, “will be a real bitch to deal with . . .” This, it had turned out, was an understatement: someone had to be there at night in case the computers stopped working, an event preceded, apparently, by a sound midway between a belch and an air leak. As this never happened (or at least never while Hank was on duty) time flowed like sludge through a gummed-up egg timer. Some nights he thought it would go on forever: the reading of newspapers, the drinking of coffee, the phantomlike strolling of dim and hushed hallways. Often, Hank felt more like a security guard than a computer operator, an impression in no way tempered when the actual guard, a type 1 diabetic, one night turned pale and started uncontrollably spasming. It took eleven yawning weeks before a replacement was hired.

But humans, they cope. It is what they’re known for. So picture him, little one, each night of each workday, my red-haired semi-papa, chewing his sandwich as slowly as possible. Or tapping his pencil on his workstation desktop. Or rubbing his ears to soothe the tinnitus that plagued him. Or sighing heavily, and slowly, as though sadness was a thing he carried in his lungs. Oh yes, picture him–thirty-six years of age, a one-time sailor and now from-life hider, the airy whir of computers soothing the sounds in his eardrums.

Plus, there was smoking. It was something he could do with Manuel, who manned the freight train—sized printer in the room just one over. Every hour on the hour, they’d both go outside, where Manuel would chatter about thoroughbreds, and chinchillas, and other hare-brained schemes for getting rich quickly. They’d hear crickets, and transformers, and the whine of car tires against black, distant asphalt. At dawn, they’d watch the parkway bathe in the light of the low sun. And always, always, there were twin coils of blue smoke, one spiralling upward from sausage-like fingers, the other from a hand that was thin and bronze-coloured.

But I digress, once again. As I may have said earlier, it was the end of Hank’s evening. He rose, wearily, reached into his desk drawer, and pulled out a pair of portable sound maskers; they looked like oversized lima beans, and they clipped to his ears with two curls of clear plastic. He turned on the volume, his ears now awash in the sound of air rushing–of all frequencies holding hands and making a warm, restful shhhhhhing. This would help. Outside, in the real world, his maskers dampened the pings and the whistles that sang inside his ears.

Thusly accoutred, he rode three storeys up to the Quality front lobby. He revolved through glass doors and stepped into hot, glinting white sun–it reflected off windshields, and hubcaps, and the building’s brass facade. Hank winced, and checked his pockets for sunglasses; he found only keys, and coins, and a wallet so flimsy with use it felt almost weightless. He swore softly, and then trudged to the stop where his bus waited for him.

On board he squeezed. The smell was weighty and pungent, like the odour given off by a poorly kept barnyard. He sighed and gripped a pole. Whenever he adjusted his stance–a bend in the road, an unexpected braking–he left behind a residue that mapped his palm’s lines and creases. Thirty minutes later, the bus pulled into the station. Hank de-boarded, and was immediately ingested by a march of commuters. This happened each morning: the stamping of feet against floors damp with water, the muffling of sound as they entered the station, the depositing of Hank at the edge of the platform. Here, he liked to lean forward and let tunnelling air flow over his hot face; as he did, he imagined what it would be like to dive forward, hands up and palms touching, the whole of his life before his eyes flashing. This possibility filled him with a warm, morbid comfort–it made him feel as though life was not a thing without options, and that if his ears and his mood ever got the better of him . . . well. He could always end it all with a quick alley-ooping. In fact, he was so busy imagining the moment of impact (apparently the smaller bones pulverize, and turn to a finely ground rock salt) he failed to notice the person skulking behind him.

Little one: he was wearing a fully zipped parka, a pair of worn tartan slippers, and a sort of Robin Hood cap made from aluminum foil. His pinprick-sized pupils blazed with divine inspiration, and he smelled, appropriately enough, as though he did the lion’s share of his urinating in grimy back alleys. Oblivious, Hank embarked on an unwise course of action: he grew a pair of crimson horns, a tail that curled whip-like into a threatening trident, and a look of fulminating evil in his large, plaintive green eyes. This inflamed the man lurking behind him; he made the sign of the cross, gazed upward to heaven, and then pitched himself forward like a steroidal rhino.

Hank toppled, eyes wide and arms circling, his sound maskers propelled from each of his pink ears. Then, for the briefest of seconds, he hovered. His body turned veil-like, and his oversized sneakers turned lighter than chiffon. And though this wasn’t noticed by those still on the platform, it nonetheless happened: his spirit turned weightless, and wafted like a leaf caught in an updraft. It was during these moments of floating that Hank was struck dumb by truths profound and eternal. It really was something: his soul flooded with joy, and his expression–normally so sober and burdened–gleamed like a child’s on Christmas Day morning. Nothing, he now understood, was as precious a feeling as your heart beating calmly, or filling your lungs with air from a forest, or listening to the songs that come during daydreams. Nothing, he now saw, was worth more than life and the gesture of living.

At which point he dropped.

Oh yes–plank-like he fell, his ear pingings replaced with screams and shouts and the loud screeching wail of metal on metal. He took the blow on his belly, which thank God had grown prodigious since his days as a seaman. His forehead landed inches from the electrified third rail. Little brown mice scattered everywhere squeaking. Then, for a moment, he lay nose-pressed and sooty. Above him, people were screaming and pointing and feverishly shouting; amidst this confusion, his assailant slipped away, triumphantly muttering. Hank lay still for a moment. Even though every bone in his body was aching, and a rivulet of blood flowed from a gash near his hairline, and his nostrils twitched at the stench of roasting brake fluid, he wasn’t worried. He would survive, he just knew it, and it was this prescience that fired his underused muscles.

With the train ten Hank-lengths away and still grinding forward, he leapt to his feet and faced the platform determined. To his right, the train driver horn-beeped and arm-waved and generally looked frantic. In front, a dozen pairs of hands reached out toward him. They were pale, dark, olive-toned, hairless, ring-wearing, male, female, large, small . . . one was even missing a portion of baby finger, such that it looked more than a little like a wiener. With the train at five Hank-lengths, he took a long stride toward the wall of the platform. The very prospect of living–of having more life!–caused him to do something he did only rarely: Hank smiled, and smiled widely. This was unfortunate. The blood chugging from his hairline gelled in the space between his front teeth, granting him the look of an unbridled savage. The crowd gasped and stepped reflexively backward. Only two pairs of hands still reached toward him–one was pale and sinewy, the other light brown and wearing a gold ring.

Hank took hold. His hands and wrists were squeezed duly. With the train sliding forward on rails hot and sparking, the two remaining stalwarts gave a galley-slave heave-ho. Hank gained a foot on the platform, and then straightened his legs so mightily that he almost pulled his rescuers onto the tracks with him. Fortunately, they were being held around the waist by the people behind them, who were in turn being grabbed by those in the third row.

This extra bit of thrust saved Hank’s life. Yet, as his right leg straightened, his left compensated by making a quick backward high kick at the moment in which the train was upon him. The crunch of small bones was lost to shouting, and screams, and the cacophonous grind of a train slowly stopping. Hank stood still, cupping hands over both ears. The air thickened and turned roux-like, and the whole of the world drooped like a painting by Dali. No one spoke. The only sounds Hank heard were the ones that his head made. In this ping-laden silence, he felt saddened all over–now that he’d survived, a new burden was upon him.

A second later he groaned, having shifted his weight to a foot in three places broken.

And so, Hank collapsed, his arms out beside him, his left foot pointed in a direction no foot should ever have to point to–it felt as though someone had heated oil in a saucepan and then upended it over the ball of his ankle. Still. Did Hank moan? Did he bellow, or howl, or claw at his face while screaming for mercy? Oh no. Now that his sipping at the grail of ecstasy was over, he reverted to the Hank who hated being the centre of attention. He swore through gritted teeth, and shut his eyes tightly, and cursed whichever bitch’s son had just tried to kill him.

He now wanted one thing and one thing only: to go home to his chair, and his paper, and his Marsona DS-600 white noise generator. He opened his eyes. Turning his head to one side, he gazed at shoes and boots and open-toed sandals. When he attempted to rise, pain whistled through him. Hank shrieked, and fell back, and held himself shivering. The crowd surged forward. He was buried beneath jackets and sweaters, beneath blazers and sweatshirts, beneath a thick toddler’s blanket and a Judaic prayer shawl and a Navajo serape that smelled faintly of wormwood; in addition to being spasmodic with pain, he now felt as hot as an incubated baby. An Evian bottle, descending from above, was placed to his mouth and gingerly tilted.

This felt good. He licked moisture from his lips and quietly whimpered. An old woman with a shopping buggy struggled to the front of those gathered. She lowered herself to her knees, her chin trembling with a slight, yet noticeable, palsy. Her breath was a steaming of garlic, cooked meat, and dill-infused mushrooms. “Is okay,” she told Hank. “Is little fall, you have. Is nothing to worry about. The doctors they coming. This, I know already . . .” She stroked his forehead with a hand cool and yeasty. “Is okay,” she kept saying, “don’t you to worry.”

Hank closed his eyes. His rib cage felt tightened, as though it were trying to choke him. He heard a garbled announcement, and the sound of footfalls coming toward him. The crowd made way for two paramedics. The old woman was suddenly rendered a figment; only her fragrance remained, gradually dwindling. Hank looked all around him, and then lay as still as was humanly possible. The younger of the paramedics, his hair tips as frosted as a child’s breakfast cereal, dropped and placed three fingers against Hank’s carotid artery.

Through chattering teeth, Hank croaked his name, identified the prime minister, and counted the trio of fingers rotating before him. When the paramedics eased him onto a white, cushioned stretcher, Hank’s foot–which was largely unrestrained by ligament or muscle–from side to side flopped like a koi out of water. He gasped, and everything went blurry; it was as though he were viewing the world through a smearing of ointment. His heart quaked and trembled, his body warmth tumbled, and he felt as though death was finally coming. Meanwhile, the older of the paramedics (moustache, eyeglasses, the out-of-date haircut of a grown man with children) was cradling Hank’s ankle while asking, “Sir . . . sir . . . can you stand this?”

There was a syringe in his hand, its tip pointing upward and bubbling with morphine.

Editorial Reviews

Praise for The Final Confession of Mabel Stark:

“Utterly captivating and thrilling. . . . A book to be pressed into the hands of customers.”
The Bookseller (UK)

“A marvelous debut about the life and amazing adventures of the greatest female tiger trainer in circus history, narrated with delicious humour and warmth. . . . One of the most entertaining novels in many a year.”
Kirkus (starred review)

Praise for The Stowaway:

“Hough does a masterful job creating an atmosphere of stifling anxiety, set against a vividly detailed portrait of the workaday reality of a large cargo vessel. . . . A superb, deceptively simple novel.”
Boston Globe

“A moving, haunting novel, full of deeply sympathetic portraits of common people being uncommonly brave.”
Publisher’s Weekly

“This is a powerful novel that artfully combines the vivid, breathless pacing of the best adventure stories with the moral and metaphysical depth of the best literary fiction.”
Quill & Quire

Other titles by Robert Hough